The Myth of the Real Deal

March 4, 2015 § 85 Comments

Well, if you can't impress me, you're never going to make it!

Well, if you can’t impress me, you’ll never make it!

A guest post from Jennifer Berney:

When I entered my MFA program in 2003, I hoped I might be a literary success in the making. Though I had only written a handful of short stories, I imagined that a two-year writing program would provide me with the structure I needed to complete a book-length manuscript, and after that I’d have it made. I’d find an agent and land a publishing contract. I might not make the bestseller list right away, but I’d have a steady, respectable career. At the time, this seemed like a reasonable dream.

Surely I was the kind of student that Ryan Boudinot writes about in his recent essay in The Stranger, “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” in which he groups his former students into two camps: the readers and the Real Deal:

The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t…The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

Though I desperately wanted to be the next “Real Deal” in 2003, it’s clear to me that I would have fallen into Boudinot’s earnest-but-uninteresting category, the type of student who should be reading instead of writing.

The title of Boudinot’s essay suggests that he will reveal unspoken truths, and yet his essay does little more than reflect an elitist mythology that is far more toxic to our writing programs than students who don’t care to read all 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest. While it is certainly true that “writers are not all born equal,” it is odious to assert that

a) a select few students are talented enough to write


b) Ryan Boudinot himself or any other writing teacher is capable of identifying who those students are.

I teach creative writing at a two-year community college and every year at least a dozen of my students enter my classroom with dreams of their own. They want to make a living telling stories about their drinking buddies, or they want to be the next J.K. Rowling, or they plan to attend the Iowa Writers Program some day. They arrive in my classroom with the same naivete I brought to my own MFA program over a decade ago, and they want to know if they might be the next Real Deal. Sometimes they ask this indirectly with the looks on their faces, or by showing up to my office hours every week. Sometimes they come out and say: Do you think I’m good enough?

Luckily for me, I don’t have to answer that question. I am a teacher, not a gatekeeper.  I tell them all that writing is a lot of work, and that if they’re called to it then, absolutely, they should write.

Over and over again, students have proven to me that I cannot accurately judge anyone’s talent over the course of a quarter. I’ve had students write fragmented, cliché-ridden stories for eleven weeks and then somehow, through what appears to be a miracle but is more likely the result of diligence, present a portfolio of eloquent, succinct work. I’ve had students write compellingly about the relentless boredom of war, about being raised by meth addicts, about coming of age in the forest, always because these were stories they needed to tell.

It’s odd to me that Boudinot found that most of his students have “nothing interesting to express,” because in my experience the opposite is true. Every student has something to say that would be of interest to some group of readers.The challenge of teaching is to help them identify which of their stories need telling.

It’s true that of the MFA cohort I studied with, not a single one of us has become the next literary superstar. Not one of us has a book on the bestseller list. Not one of us has won a National Book Award or a Pulitzer. Plenty of us have moved on to parenthood and day jobs, and many of us have given up on being full-time writers, but nearly all of us continue to write and publish. Collectively, we’ve published novels and poems and memoirs; we’ve published essays and blog posts and op-eds. Though we may have grown up and revised our definitions of success, we remain committed to the work of telling stories.

Much has been made in recent years about the perceived glut of MFA programs in the U.S., as if the world has too many writers, as if only a select few have a right to be taught and be heard. But what happens when students walk into the classroom and their teacher is scouting for the next Real Deal? How does the teacher decide who is Real and who is not, and who does he privilege, who does he silence in the process?


Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Nailed, and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and blogs at Goodnight Already. You can find her on Twitter @JennBerney.

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§ 85 Responses to The Myth of the Real Deal

  • Tell it, Jennifer.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you. Just thank you for saying that no one person has the talent to recognize or the right to decide who is the “real deal.”

  • Amen, Jenn! Great piece.

  • aunnielauren says:

    I was already appreciating this article, and then that last line was like a stranger surprising me with flowers ❤

    I am gearing up to further glut a writing program myself. Not because I dream to be the next big thing, and (finally, at long last!) not to seek validation. I want to immerse myself in a field I love. I did that as an undergrad; without knowing where it would take me, I have a BA in women's studies, and now I work in special education. None of this was mapped, or planned out, but I feel lucky and happy. It's given me faith that in going where I believe I need to be, doors will open that I can't even imagine right now.

    This is lovely, and just what I needed this morning 🙂

  • Amy Zlatic says:

    This is extraordinary. Mostly because it recognizes, rightfully so, that everyone has a story to tell. I am amazed at what I can coax out of people who start an interview with, “I don’t know what to say. I have a really boring life.” It always turns out anything but. And they always come back to me and say, “You made me sound so interesting.” I didn’t make them sound interesting, they ARE interesting. Kudos to those who wish to tell their own stories, who wish to grow in the beautiful art of writing. Thank you for writing such a lovely piece that encourages and builds up, rather than discourages and tears down. You have made the world a better place!

  • So right on. Over the years– and there have been many– I have been in those classes where “famous” writers (mostly men) were looking for the Real Deal. I have experienced that silence. Thank you for naming it.

  • […] b) Ryan Boudinot himself or any other writing teacher is capable of identifying who those students are. [READ MORE] […]

  • Becki says:

    Great piece. The same can be said of any arts program — no one knows who the next great artist or writer or musician will be.

  • This is really, really helpful, thoughtful. I find myself struggingly with this and thinking about it constantly, what do I have to offer, why am I any different. Where do I stand were we to line up all the writers from horrible to best? I feel like I have a good sense of others’ writing, but a complete blind spot on my own. Finally, I settled on just ‘get better.’ A goal that works because I care less which allows my thoughts to be better. It is not easy though. I’m always thinking about that writer line-up in the back of my head.

    Thank you for this piece!

  • vlettmann says:

    Thank you. Thank you. You’ve pinpointed a major problem with some writers who see stardom as the only reason for pursuing an MFA–or for continuing to write. I wrote nothing for several years after completing my MBA. Not because the writers I worked with were as condescending as the one you describe, but because I lost the joy of writing. All that workshopping and critiquing made writing even a short story seem like an impossible hurdle–requiring an enormous amount of work and struggle. I’ve returned to writing now and find pleasure without the need to make a name as the next great writing talent.
    Thanks again for insights.

  • NickNelson07 says:

    Reblogged this on Rewriting and commented:
    What an excellent look at students and ambitions. I definitely was one of those students. Great piece!

  • Reblogged this on Luke Dani Blue and commented:
    My friend and the teacher who brought me back to writing, Jenn Berney, with a succinct, intelligent response to the inflammatory Mr. Boudinot.

  • Just perfect, Jennifer. Thank you for your voice and perspective.

  • Ann Cinzar says:

    Jennifer, as I read this I realized I just read your piece on Brain, Child a couple weeks ago. I loved this—writers, especially those in the early stage like me, have enough self-doubt without “teachers” adding to it. Thank you for this—you are what I would call the real deal!

  • John says:

    I thought Boudinot’s essay was rather interesting. Much like Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter”, written a decade ago, Boudinot makes a similar argument. And, while there are always multiple sides to an argument, I think he’s partially right.

    I think there are those who are natural writers, people who’s “rough draft” is much better than someone else’s “final version”. Some people can be taught to write well, some can only be taught to be better writers.

    Like you, I think that he’s wrong in saying that many don’t have interesting things to say. I think we all have interesting stories to share. We may not all have book length stories to tell. We may not have multi-volume memoirs full of stories to share. I think we’ve all got a few interesting stories in us. The trick is to find the best way to express them.

    I think some people want to write a book, but might be better at essays. Some want to write a memoir, but a fictionalized account, where things can be embellished or events altered slightly might be better. Some people want to be a novelist, when, in fact, they might be better suited to short stories. I think it’s not so much about having something interesting to say — it’s more about finding the best way to say it.

    I don’t think Boudinot is one-hundred percent wrong. I think he upped the rhetoric in his essay, to make it sound more inflammatory — perhaps on purpose, to get a conversation going? I think he is guilty of too much generalizing. The implication that all MFA students/programs are bad is a gross overstatement. Though, as you say yourself, there are some who have the dream, but may not be able to create magic with their words. It’s true of any degree program, really — there are always people in programs who are naturals; then there are those who aren’t naturally gifted, but work diligently to become good at whatever it is; and then there are those with the dream, but who are somehow just not in the right place.

    I will say that Boudinot seems unaware that he comes across as being guilty of the things he’s accusing others of.

    I read another response to Boudinot, and that response was just as full of inflammatory rhetoric as Boudinot’s. Your response is much more self-aware, much more thoughtful. I enjoyed reading it very much.

  • Erica McKeen says:

    This reminds me of many University writing courses I have taken. I feel that professors often teach a class with certain expectations for what a student should write about, and how he or she should write it. In response, I usually try to twist and subvert the teacher’s expectations in my writing, which is perhaps a little too spiteful, but it at least keeps me writing rather than growing so frustrated I drop the whole practice (or class) altogether.

    Thanks for a great post!

  • I love this. Thanks for writing it. This really needed to be said. Too many writers are categorized and then become discouraged. We all need to find what we want as far as what we want to write and achieve, and go for it.

  • Amen. Despite high achievement in the department and in publishing outside the department, I was basically told as an undergrad that I’d make someone a very competent assistant, one day, and that my roommate was the real deal. I spent the next more than 15 years wondering why I’d bother writing, if that was the case. I’ve only recently realized that letting someone else dictate the course of my vocation based on what he thought I had within me at 22 gives him power he didn’t deserve, then or now.

  • help me to be like you

  • Rain, Rain says:

    Really? I thought that Boudinot article was really good. In fact, he has inspired me to go in for an MFA, where I will concentrate my energies on winning the approval of the bitterest of my teachers so that I can graduate to embark on endless rounds of desperately hoping to be noticed while trying to pay off my student loans before I ultimately fold my hand and go to law school.

  • belliebunx says:

    This post is so relevant. Not only in my life but I think just in general. I would love to read some of Jennifer’s work. Maybe you could post some of her work on your blog?

  • sandraeaster says:

    Reblogged this on Sandra Easter and commented:
    There is nothing I can say about this that she doesn’t already say.

  • hector1943 says:

    Teachers advise one on what not to include in ones work. Constructive criticism within the group leads to confusion and self doubt lending itself to a curious form of plagiarism. If you have a story to tell then let it be your story. Work at it.

  • skyllairae says:

    Reblogged this on EAT ME.

  • April R says:

    Preach it girl.

  • creamy725 says:

    Reblogged this on My Blog.

  • hameddd says:

    Reblogged this on hameddd.

  • hameddd says:

    المقال حلو

  • Great piece!
    I always liked to write and read too, and whenever anyone says that my piece is not good enough I end up writing another this time in a more meticulous and prepared manner just to prove him wrong
    Great piece!

  • kambingqurbantangerang says:

    Follow me, i need a boy friend.

  • echwaaz says:

    Reblogged this on sechwaazpoetrytothebits and commented:
    Have a look at this guys
    it from my fellow blogger.

  • where we are says:

    I think we spend too much energy willing ourselves to become “the real deal.” Writing is a powerful tool for teaching, compelling change, and providing escape through stories. We don’t all have to be famous to accomplish these things.

    I also agree with the notion that there are many writers who could have been (and sometimes end up being) “the real deal” were it not for dominant culture gate-keeping.

  • This was amazing such good work you’ve inspired me even more! here’s a link to my poetry!

  • Reblogged this on poeticaffrimations and commented:
    Good read and very inspiring!

  • LV Lewis says:

    I concur with your viewpoint, Jennifer. So much. If writing is a passion, one can eventually reach “real deal” status without the blessing of an MFA Professor.

  • LV Lewis says:

    Reblogged this on L. V. Lewis and commented:
    A writer with enough passion doesn’t need to be categorized like a Coca-Cola. That’s just my two cents!

  • […] Originally posted on BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog: […]

  • […] response to the “Real-Deal” perspective, or what may really be a syndrome. Although The Myth of the Real Deal explains and contradicts two types of students that either have it or don’t in writing, I […]

  • Ray Smith says:

    Well, we just assume but we are not predictive or most of time fine about real deal.. as we even don’t know about ourselves well…..

  • wendy7906 says:

    Sorry I was trying to say that I think what is meant by the article is not that if a teacher finds a writer’s work uninteresting then he/she is not a real writer. Instead I think it’s emphasizing that if you are able to write in a manner that expresses your story in such a way that people can relate to it or imagine it. Then more people will want to read your story. Or maybe I as wrong?

  • Ann Kilter says:

    Sometimes you do have to live a while to have a story develop in your life worth telling, to change your early perspectives. In the meanwhile, it’s a good idea to sharpen your skills to be ready for the telling.

  • Anthony Reese says:

    Reblogged this on Logbook 17 and commented:
    Stunningly written article on the importance (and maybe illusion) of the MFA program.

  • nimi naren says:

    So beaitifully written

  • dpomeroy94 says:

    Reblogged this on pomeroymlbstart and commented:
    My life right now In a nut shell if you will.

  • lmille50 says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on Mr. Boudinot’s article. I think its very unfortunate that a teacher would be so quick to pick and choose who will have content to write about or be any good at writing in the long term. As being somewhat of a beginning writer, I found your article to be somewhat depressing and discouraging to start off with. That is until, I learned how you felt about the topic, as well as those who have left comments. I’m like most others questioning rather I’m good enough or if I have something different to offer. The thing is that everyone and anyone has something different to offer. Another aspect to consider is that one student may simply have had more practice at any given time than another. The more we practice, as we all know, the better we will become. Like myself, many people start journals, blogs, or other writing projects simlply to keep them writing, and constantly honing their skills. We are all just trying to follow our dreams and find our calling and purpose in life. No one person can stop us from doing that and shame on the one who thinks his opinion is the end-all and be-all of ones writing career. Thank you for believing that any of us aspiring writers could be the real deal, rather one particular teacher, or anyone at all believes it or not!

  • Nneka says:

    I love it. I love writing, I live to write.

  • glevum1 says:

    I did an Academic Studies course at Dundee College Of Commerce in the ’80s. One of the modules was Higher/A Level English. The gentleman who taught it, Bill Rae, had an eye for talent. He was very encouraging.

  • I feel that if you wish to write, then you need to get on and do it. Do it regularly and get into the habit of doing it at the same time and for the same period each day. No one is born a great writer. Courses won’t make you into a great writer but you will be inspired by others and hopefully, by a wonderful teacher, who will encourage you to get enough words down on paper, and work on your talents. I am a real estate agent and firmly believe that each house has its ideal person. Someone who will walk over the doorstep and know that it is home. Every story will have its ideal reader so who are we to say which stories should be told. The first ideal reader will be the writer, so write for yourself, and enjoy the experience. Everything else is just toffee.

  • Reblogged this on Leaving Normal and commented:
    whose stories deserve to be read? For whom should be be wriiting?

  • Awesome post! Well written and a really good read.

  • Good post. Nobody can tell you to stop following your dreams and passions. Only you can decide that for yourself. Writing is like breathing, it’s something you have to do whether published or not. Follow your own path.

  • I read both of your posts. I thought Boudinot’s seemed incredibly cynical and discouraging to young writers, a category I fall into. I don’t believe that there are “real deals.” And while I also don’t believe that every person has the potential to be a great writer, I do believe that hard work does wonders for your writing ability. I think he was probably right about needing to write a lot, but let’s be honest, some people really don’t have the time. That doesn’t mean those people can’t be great writers. It just means it might take them longer.

    Thanks for the great post, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  • carlambrown says:

    Very nicely done… Enjoyed this read 🙂

  • Thanks for this. I shared it with my students. Having come out of a writing program, I agree with everything Boudinot has to say. I would only add that the obsession with having a book is not the only way to live a creative life. Thanks.

  • Great post! I’m in the process of writing my first memoir and am struggling with how it I could become the next “real deal” and a literary success…. Your line about altering definitions of success but still continuing to write is inspiring – thank you! Maybe I don’t need to define my success by whether or not my book sells millions, but if I can find the courage to tell my story and share it with even one person. Here’s my blog, in case you’re interested:

  • The next essay should be about revised “definitions of success.”

  • “which of their stories need telling.” Truth.

  • aesthetenyc says:

    Wow! As a person who has always loved writing this expressed so correctly how I’ve felt before! Such a good read! I definitely need to revisit those forgotten writer dreams.

  • bperoff says:

    Reblogged this on bryanperoff.

  • Perhaps the ‘Real Deal’ is a combination of talent, perseverance, opportunity, and luck.

  • dmclark35 says:

    Excellent insight into something I had a hunch about. I know some profs. favor the students they see a certain something in, but I wanted to take the high road. I guess if I was younger that might really bother me, but, perhaps, it’s just human nature (at its most base) and something that has to be accepted. Yet, that doesn’t mean anyone should give up on their dreams.Great work and a great article!

  • Jack says:

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend.

  • scromantique says:

    Reblogged this on selfconfessedromantique and commented:
    My current state…

  • My lit agent told me when I first started, “Don’t write for the money because you’re not likely to make enough. Write if you have to, if you love it and if you can’t help yourself. Get a job to pay the bills, though.” I did have a couple of books published by big houses, still didn’t make much money so I guess I wasn’t the Real Deal, despite having achieved a level of success most writers don’t. I did have to get a real job to pay the bills but I still write. I just self-published a memoir about extreme family dysfunction. I didn’t even seek an agent or publishing house. I just put it out there because, as my agent said long ago, I “had to.” I wanted to tell the story because it was a good one and because I thought it might help others struggled with difficult parents and narcissistic siblings. I had to write it because I needed to process it. So MFA or not (for me it’s not) I’m not going to be the “Real Deal” but I am and will always be a writer.

  • kimshay says:

    I have a relative who did win that for her book but I still can not get into it. I am thankful for writers who just express. I have loved many self published books more than some acclaimed ones. Love the post.

  • fcpremitch says:

    I’m an undergraduate creative writing student with plans on teaching. Being a successful author would be cool but I’m more interested in teaching while writing on the side. Would you say MFA is the right approach for me?

  • tmezpoetry says:

    Right on! So often we forget that book nor blog will judge the reader which makes for delightful company. And in such visitations, the significance of our experiences and craft travels farther than the boundaries of leather spines. Every writer who says, ‘I must’ and fails to do so, ignores the fact that ‘self’ is the one being denied the jounrey.

  • tmezpoetry says:

    Even when the self comes with typos hehe

  • […] “The Myth of the Real Deal,” a response to Ryan Boudinot’s piece on MFA programs in The Stranger, Jennifer Berney talks […]

  • […] contributing blogger for Brain, Child, and her work has also appeared in Mutha Magazine and on the Brevity blog. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight […]

  • So Fitzgerald says ‘a writer doesn’t write because he wants to say something; a writer writes because he has something to say.’ Now taking this together with Mr. B’s views, we get to the heart of the matter. It may sound insensitive to say it; but the fact is that some people either just aren’t that interested in things (incurious) or just aren’t interesting themselves (dull). Both are deadly if you want to be a writer. Fitzgerald also said this about Americans: they want to have the success of being a writer without wanting to put in the hard work necessary to become one. They key to understanding what he meant here is in the meaning of ‘hard work.’ He wasn’t talking about the number of hours you sit in a chair; he was talking about “starting out with an emotion I am close to and can understand” and from there you are on one hell of an emotional ride where rollercoasters aren’t baby carriages. Hell, read half a dozen biographies of writers and one can easily come to the conclusion that psychological ‘turbulence’ (a polite way of putting it) is a prerequisite.

  • This is amazing. 🙂

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